Sep172009
Climate Control
Written by Ava

Though a humble and modest man, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg stands tall in the world of climate change and marine science.  Though currently the Foundation Professor and Director of the Centre for Marine Studies at The University of Queensland, he's held other academic positions at UCLA, Stanford University,The University of Sydney, and The University of Queensland.  He's a member of the Australian Climate, Royal Society (London) Marine Advisory Network, and the Board of Editing Reviewers at Science Magazine.  He heads up a large research lab with over 27 researchers and students that focus on how global warming and ocean acidification are affecting coral reefs.  

He's written dozens of publications, had his work read by the Al Gore team, visited Antarctica, lived underwater for 10 days, and is creator of Climate Shifts, a blog that brings climate change issues and science discussions to a larger audience, without being restricted to scientists only.

Yes, he's done quite a bit and lives to tell about it. Now, TRT gets to hear about it.  We're excited to hear from this climate change king.

How did you get your start in marine biology?

My interest in the ocean began as a small child, first with a fascination with sharks and then everything else that lives below the waves.  Growing up in Sydney, my family used to take annual holidays on the south coast of New South Wales.  Here, amid the crashing waves, were magical rock pools filled with colorful fish and strange creatures. These experiences then developed into an active interest in snorkelling around the Sydney area, and eventually in keeping some of the creatures that I found during those trips.

One of the great things that happens every summer in Sydney is that larval organisms such as butterfly fish and barber shrimp are swept down the coast from the Great Barrier Reef by the East Australian current and settle in Sydney (much like in Nemo) .  These small fish and invertebrates grow up over the summer but are killed by the winter waters.  Together with friends, I spent almost every weekend in the summer focused on collecting these tiny creatures and growing them up in aquaria.  Because they were destined to die anyway, I could maintain my conservation ethics while experiencing the fun of collecting.  

Given my passion in all things marine, I went to the University of Sydney to study marine science, obtaining first-class Honors in 1982.  I then was lucky enough to get a scholarship to attend the University of California at Los Angeles where I began my Ph.D. and began studying the symbiosis between invertebrates such as corals and sea anemones, and tiny plant-like organisms known as zooxanthellae. These organisms lie at the heart of coral reefs.

Why choose to focus on climate change and how it relates to the marine world?

My studies on the symbiosis between corals and zooxanthellae considered the phenomenon of mass coral bleaching, which had begun to occur in the Caribbean in the early 1980s. At that point, we did not know why corals were bleaching.  During my Ph.D., however, I did experiments that showed that mass coral bleaching was a consequence of warmer than normal sea temperatures.  This had been the suspicion of several researchers at this point.  

The studies then led to a broader consideration of how sea temperatures were being driven by climate change, resulting in my interest in the physiology of heat stress in marine organisms.  These types of studies led me to collaborate with climate scientists who was studying how and why the earth's temperature was changing so quickly. My paper in 1999 revealed that sea temperatures were increasing so quickly that coral bleaching would become an annual phenomenon within 30 to 50 years. This information was quite alarming because it suggested that coral reefs may actually disappear if we do not work extremely quickly and decisively to bring down fossil fuel emissions. These ideas have been confirmed by many other studies, and have highlighted the extreme threat that climate change poses to corals and the reefs that they build.

What are some of the major marine climate change issues of the world?


The rapid rise in sea temperature represents a severe threat to marine organisms such as reef-building corals. There are many other changes that are now occurring as a result of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  One of these is ocean acidification, which is a result of the increasing amount of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere. As a result of these increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, CO2 is entering the ocean in greater amounts.  When CO2 enters the ocean, it reacts with water and forms and acid, which subsequently reacts with carbonate, decreasing the concentration of these important ions (which is critical for the formation of the calcium carbonate skeletons of corals and other organisms).  Scientists have recently found that the ability of corals to form their skeletons has decrease sharply over the last 20 years.  

The implications of these changes in the chemistry of the ocean are serious.  If calcification continues to decrease rapidly, the ability of corals and other organisms to build and maintain the superstructure of coral reefs may fall behind the processes of physical and biological erosion. If this happens, the three-dimensional structure of coral reefs may crumble and disappear over the next 30 to 50 years. This will essentially eliminate coral reefs and the habitat that they provide for over 1 million species in the ocean.

Scientists are also reporting changes in the ocean, such as ocean mixing, and the direction and strength of currents.  These changes are leading to the phenomenon of deepwater anoxia - which occurs due to the fact that the warming of the ocean is leading to less mixing of oxygen-rich surface water with deeper layers of the ocean.  Scientists are already reporting huge fish kills along the west coast of the United States which are associated with the deeper layers the ocean running out of oxygen. While scientists don't have a complete understanding of how these phenomenon are connected to global climate change as yet, the best explanation at this point is that the increased heating of the ocean (about one degree since the Industrial Revolution) is leading to a change in its dynamics, which has big implications for life in the ocean.

How do you hope to educate the world to make them more aware of these current problems?

Contrary to the anti-science movement (incorrectly called the “skeptics” movement) the scientific proof behind the existence of climate change as result of fossil fuel emissions is extremely extensive and watertight.  Science has concluded that it is human driven and represents a huge threat to the world's ecosystems and human well-being.  With over 10,000 peer-reviewed articles and the highly objective and self-critical process associated with scientific organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is no longer any room for credible doubt.  So-called scientists such as Dr  Jay Lehr (chief scientist of the Heartland Institute in the United States) does not have any credible peer-reviewed articles that support the alternative viewpoint. This is the case with most other anti-science view promoters such as Bob Carter.  Putting aside the ridiculous conspiracy theory that science has something to hide, it appears that this challenge to our planet is extremely serious and that we must begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions rapidly.

Indicating the urgency of this problem represents the next challenge.  While there are over 10,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications, there is still a wide gulf between scientists and the rest of society in terms of understanding the details and urgency of the problem. This is no doubt a consequence of the complex nature of the evidence and the problem.  In this respect, there is an imperative that we work on how scientists communicate and educate people about the severity of this issue. This may involve different media from the traditional scientific literature.  

I have worked a lot with documentary makers and have found that they often have unique and effective ways of getting messages across.  They also have huge audiences. I remember working with the BBC on one documentary, which was viewed by 1.8 million people on its first evening.  In contrast, even the most popular scientific article might only be read by a few thousand people at most.  This suggests that scientists need to collaborate with communication professionals to help get their important messages out into the public space. Scientists may have to consider using devices such as Facebook and twitter to facilitate a greater understanding in society of the problems and the extreme urgency of dealing with the greenhouse gas emission issue.

You’ve been to Antarctica.  Is climate change affecting marine life there?

I was fortunate enough to spend three months in Antarctica in 1991. As part of my duties, I spent many long hours underwater, passing through 2 m of ice into an icy but magical twilight world below. Like all parts of our planet, life has learnt to live at the extremely cold temperature of -1.8°C over thousands if not millions of years. My mission was to study how life deals with these cold temperatures.

Unfortunately, things are changing more rapidly in our polar regions as result of climate change. While temperatures have been going up all over our planet, they have been going up twice as fast in our polar regions. This has caused a massive change in the extent of sea ice (with sea ice and the North Pole possibly disappearing with the next 10 years despite the fact that it has been in place over 1 million).  Water is also pouring off the great landlocked Western Antarctic ice sheet (as well is that of Greenland), leading to the prediction that sea levels will rise by 1 m or more by the end of this century. These types of changes are already affecting life in the polar regions- with impacts being registered on polar bears, penguins, seals and other marine life. If these changes continue, some organisms like polar bears and seals may experience extreme contractions in their populations and may even face extinction.

What was it like to live underwater for 10 days?


I was fortunate enough to live underwater in the Aquarius habitat to 10 days in 2002.  This was really one of the most wonderful times of my life (my journal entries can be found at NOAA's Aquarius website).  Experience involved undergoing saturation diving to 20 m for 10 days, and then living and studying a reef that was 7 miles off Key Largo in Florida.  What was wonderful about this experience was that one felt part of the ecosystem - every day diving to 6 to 8 hours across the still spectacular reef systems of Florida.  As part of this experience I made many friends … most of these were toothy and piscine.  I had one particular Hogfish who seemed to greet me like a small dog every time I exited the Aquarius habitat. There was also some resident barracuda who eyed us with great suspicion (after the experience of several of my friends, I knew to keep my hands to myself in the case of these fellows!).  

Overall the mission was highly successful - we studied the effect of climate change on coral reproduction and managed to publish a couple of articles from the work.  The Aquarius habitat mission which is run by NOAA is an important facility to enable us to understand the ocean and away the way that it is changing as a result of climate change.

Ten years ago, you predicted the death of the Great Barrier Reef if the water continued to warm from climate change.  Why is happening to the Great Barrier Reef now and how right were you?

In 1999, I published a paper in which I brought our understanding of how sensitive corals were to temperature change together with the projections coming from the atmospheric science community. One of the conclusions from my study was that sea temperatures would soon exceed one yearly basis the temperatures known to cause coral bleaching and death, if we allowed atmospheric carbon dioxide to double. This caused considerable controversy, with many people being unable to contemplate the fact that coral reefs might not be with us in 30-50 years if we continue on the current emission trajectory.  Ten years after this paper, however, many other studies have examined my work and conclusions.  Unfortunately, these studies have come up with similar conclusions.  

So Al Gore reads your work? ;-)

In the late 1990s, Greenpeace International informed me that some of the studies I had been doing on coral bleaching were being read by the Al Gore team.  This was a great compliment and I felt that my science was at least be listened to by some influential individuals. At this point, Al Gore had been working hard to try and get the science and urgency of the issue of climate change communicated to the American public.  I still stand in awe of his work - it was a great moment to hear that he got the Nobel Prize in 2007 along with the IPCC.

Tell me about your site Climate Shifts and what you are hoping to accomplish with it?

I started the Climate Shifts blog for a couple of reasons.   The first was that I felt that there was a need to shorten the cycle of discussion associated with scientific developments and publications. Normally, science is published in peer reviewed journals - which is a process that may take months or even years to transpire.  This timeframe tends to make scientific discussions of important issues less dynamic and topical.  And as I have commented elsewhere, publishing science only in the scientific literature leads to are highly restricted audience, which is a shame given that much of the science is about solutions will perspectives that we need to consider in a wider framework.  

I have really enjoyed running the blog and do believe that it has a value to the wider community. It has also allowed me to discuss and comment on a broader range of issues that are often important in the context of tropical coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs.  It is fun to be involved in the sometimes heated debates associated with the issues of coral reefs, climate change and ocean biology in general.

What can the average person do to help alleviate some of the problems going on with climate change and the marine world?

While the issue of climate change may seem overwhelming to the average person, the solutions actually do come down to us. And important news is that there are many things we can do now which will avoid the worst of climate change.  Therefore, it is important that all of us work towards solutions within our homes, communities and nations. Simple things such as considering the amount of energy and installation we use within our houses and workplaces can have huge impacts on the amount of greenhouse emissions that we are met as a nation and the global society.  

The really good news is that the solutions to climate change are still within reach, and that the costs of changing the way we generate and use energy are minimal.  The fourth assessment report of the IPCC outlined those costs as representing a few percent of GDP growth over the coming decades - much lower than the rather devastating costs if we do not take action. They are also much lower than those represented by the scare campaigns run by special interest.

One of the most important ways that we can have a big influence on whether or not our societies deal with the problem of greenhouse gas emissions is by looking to the people elected to represent us on Capitol Hill and other legislative bodies across the planet. Calling your minister, congressman or senator to express your concern and to ask for their leadership towards the solutions is an important and powerful start in this respect.  We must also ensure that the interests of a few do not jeopardize our precious natural systems and the future of our planet.  Personally, I believe that we will solve the problem of climate change and that we will preserve these beautiful ecosystems such as coral reefs.   After all, all we have to do is act and act today.

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